Why, oh why, does El Clasic always destroy perspective? Cules are howling about referees and penalties denied. Marca is caterwauling about “a draw that feels like a win,” and the blather goes on. Here’s some perspective:
EE has all but lost the Liga with its 1-1 draw with us. That’s right. Read it and feel better. Guardiola went on all week about how a win is a “must,” etc, etc. He was kidding. If you’d have asked him in his heart of hearts if he would have been happy with a draw, he would have said yes, for the simple reason that it now means we have to drop 9 points in 6 matches. (The lead is 8, but we have the head-to-head advantage) That’s the same number of points that it has taken us 31 matches to drop. It’s a number that also assumes EE is going to win out, hurdling away matches against Sevilla, Valencia and Villarreal.
I’m a die-hard cule who sees gloom and doom around every corner, but even I can’t spin that one in a way that’s negative.
Further, people are acting as if we drew against Malaga, or some other bottom-dwelling side. No. We drew against arguably the second-best club in the world, who was able to bring in two inspired, match-altering substitutions. Even then, errors were required for those subs to have an effect. They began pressing because they were playing for pride at home. They weren’t playing seriously for the Liga. That much was clear when they came out with a defense-minded lineup that essentially stacked a trio of midfielders with the creativity of a drunk bulldozer driver.
An insult? Doubtful. Even the staunchest EE supporter will admit that a midfield of Khedira, Alonso and Pepe isn’t organized with offense and creativity as its paramount consideration.
We, conversely, were keeping it in second gear because we have a match against this same club to play on Wednesday, and we knew very well once the starting lineup was clear that barring any sorts of calamities or set-piece stupidity, this side wasn’t going to beat us.
And the chess match continues.
Guardiola came out with his “best available” lineup of Valdes, Alves, Pique, Puyol, Adriano, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Pedro! and Villa, and the quandary was interesting. Do you rest players by letting your best play in second gear, or do you rest players by flat-out sitting them down. Decorum and firing squads dictate that you can’t play a B side in El Clasic, no matter what your views on the Liga title are. So you roll them out, and watch them sashay about. No pressing, no pit-bull attacks, no serious efforts, no nothing except a calm possession game, facilitated by an EE lineup set up to keep us from dropping another manita on them in their house. Inspired? Again, it depends on perspective. Pepe played an excellent match, but he isn’t Ozil and it showed in their attack that was long balls and breaks up the flanks.
But the few times we were actually serious about attacking, Villa got into the box twice, earning a penalty once, wet the bed in front of Casillas a few more times and Messi had two point-blank shots stopped by Casillas. Then we went back to knocking the ball around again.
This match was interesting because of what it represented, another edition of the storied, bitter rivalry that is El Clasic. The world stopped, Spain hovered in a frenetic, breathless paroxysm of “Omigod”-ness in an affliction that recurs twice a year usually, but this month will plague with an almost weekly flare-up. But only the most generous would say that it was a truly, truly interesting match for the precise reasons I’ve already laid out. One team wanted to stop the other team from scoring, and the other team wasn’t all that interested in scoring that much. So one team passed the ball around and the other team chased it. 90 minutes passed and the hyperventilating began.
The only ways that they were going to beat us were set pieces or errors, and both came in abundance. Thong Boy smacked the post on a free kick, Adriano had to clear a set piece header off the line and a penalty was earned when instead of just hoofing the ball up the pitch like you’re supposed to do when defending a 0-1 lead against a very dangerous, pressing team, Busquets played the ball to Xavi without checking behind first. Opponent quality applies pressure in different ways. So Ozil stole it and played it to TB who played it to Marcelo, who was there when Alves got stupid and tried to make a play instead of realizing that Marcelo wasn’t going anywhere, so just do a Keiteeeee, and get in the way.
But again, that’s perspective. EE-centric press, fans and pundits will argue about ducks broken, great comebacks with 10 men, etc, etc. Mind you, excellent teams capitalize on opponent mistakes, so full credit to them. We usually get out of those sorts of dodgy moments because Almeria attackers put the ball over the net, or overhit the pass. But not today, not in their house.
And by drawing, we win. Yay for us! Will both coaches pay lip service to the Liga not being officially over? For sure. But it is. Done. Other than that, there just wasn’t a whole lot of match to review, folks. Sorry. One team was being actively negative, while the other team was being passively negative. A draw was a fair result. What makes me feel that we were being actively negative? Look at how slowly the ball moved, and how little off-the-ball movement there was. It was like a training exercise. EE didn’t care, because as long as we stroked the ball around, we weren’t presenting the danger of putting the ball into the net. So it’s all good.
I got to thinking about (once again) the Chicago Bulls championship winning teams and the Jordan Rules, instituted by Detroit Pistons coach Chuck Daly, a man who was a lot like Jose Mourinho. The Jordan Rules were essentially to let anybody except Michael Jordan beat you. Stop him, and kill the beast. It worked for a while, until Jordan got the quality players necessary to kill, thus allowing him to kill. Mourinho has the Messi Rules. Pepe shadowed Messi, with Marcelo hanging around. Messi helped them keep him quiet by insisting on making runs rather than using his teammates (again like Jordan, before he got religion). They’d absorb the pressure, then Pepe or Marcelo would take the ball and off they went on the counter.
Messi had two exceptional scoring chances that weren’t in reality as good as they looked. In the first, he took a brilliant ball from Iniesta and squared on Casillas. But Marcelo was right there pressuring, and Messi’s first touch was a little loose. So he had to recover the ball, then try a shot of some kind. An easily snagged chip was the sole option, and Casillas stoppped him. It’s worth noting that an on-form Messi controls that pass better and smokes Casillas, as he did last year at the Bernabeu. It happens.
The second scoring chance was Messi, taking advantage of space created by one of our “all hands on deck” breaks. But there again, he had defenders escorting him, cutting off the opportunities for a square ball and basically giving him a corridor through which to shoot. At the end of that corridor was Casillas.
Again, this wasn’t Ceuta, or Sociedad. It’s their world-class players against ours, and theirs are going to make plays, just like ours do. That’s what makes matches such as this one a Big Deal, even when they aren’t such a big deal in the actual realization, because what often happens is that two teams stocked with great players cancel each other out. So the match turns on one or two moments, plays made or not, calls made or not, brain cramps not being massaged out in time. Busquets could have guaranteed the win by hoofing the ball out. Hard. It’s the 81st minute, dude. No time to be pretty. Pique could have called him off the ball and hoofed it out. And Xavi could have further guaranteed things by shielding it better with his body. Neither one did, and a great player made them pay, turning a win into a draw.
Other talking points
–The referee wasn’t exactly some blind, blithering idiot determined to allow EE to make the match happen. Players create situations for refs to screw up. As Guardiola said, the man was doing his job. Calls were made, calls were missed, in favor of and against both sides. The only clear-cut situation was when Villa was jumped in the EE box. It would be hard to find someone who would quibble with a man being grabbed around the throat and hauled down by his shoulder as not being a penalty. Which isn’t to say that there won’t be some. As I said, this match screws with perspective. And yes, they were giving us extra little kicks and shoves whenever possible, but those are always allowed against us. We should be used to it by now. And no, the Casillas/Villa interaction wasn’t a penalty. Maybe had Villa actually tried to control the ball and score instead of being determined to trip over Casillas and draw a penalty, he might have earned an actual one. As it was, he was falling down almost before Casillas even got there, and someone might even (the bastards!) suggest that Casillas got to the ball a nanosecond before Villa.
And then there’s Alves. As I said, don’t give people a chance to screw up. What is Marcelo going to do against you, running full tilt at that kind of angle to goal? Nothing. It’s hard to argue for robbery when you give something away. Their players go down in the box, and they’re very good at it. No judgment, just an observation. It’s why they have so many more penalties awarded than we do. So a player has to think before making a play. Alves ddn’t. Am I saying the play was or wasn’t a penalty? Immaterial. You can’t allow the ref the option to make a wrong (not benefitting your club) call.
–The grass: They let theirs grow long, we give ours a buzz cut, then lubricate it with water. Does one being negative and one being “positive” make for right or wrong? Nope. In both cases it’s teams trying to get an edge. Shameful. Nope. Again as Guardiola said, you do what you want to your own house. It’s up to us to deal with it.
Team: 6. Good effort at times, mostly the uncertainty that comes from not playing your hardest. Will that pay off on Wednesday, as we face a tired EE in the Copa final? Doubtful. That’s 4 days away. A few good nights rest, and they will be right as can be. There were key breakdowns, and uncharacteristic looseness with the ball.
Guardiola: 8. Right lineup, right substitutions, made too late, as is often his wont.
Valdes: 7. A very good match with most of all the right moves. His choice to play Ramos the way he did was sound, even if not ultimately the correct one.
Alves: 5. Di Maria constantly used his vacated space to work into, and he didn’t really make them pay with his offense. And that play on Marcelo was just stupid. Don’t give the ref the opportunity to make the wrong judgment call in a bang-bang situation.
Puyol: 7. A very good match, punctuated by a few uncharacteristic giveaways. His presence makes Pique better, without question. His position defense is excellent, more than making up for the diminished pace.
Pique: 7. Key interventions, and a spot-on sense of when to roam and when to stay home. He should have been stronger on that final play. He was in a better position than Busquets to make a play. Call him off, and hoof it out.
Adriano: 9. Man of the Match, going away. When have we last had someone not named Abidal who could outrun Thong Boy, as Adriano did. He was in the right place at the right time with the right play time and time again, and what a header off the line to save a goal.
Busquets: 5. Not as influential as he could/should have been, with a few “Bad Busi!” moments. And that simulation on the sideline was ridiculous. He had stopped that sort of nonsense for a while. The pass to Xavi that gifted the steal to Ozil was ill-advised to the point of full-on stupidity.
Xavi: 5. Bereft of his usual command of the match, with some wayward passes and out-of-position moments. Yes, some great balls also, but not enough of them to keep him from being average.
Iniesta: 4. Even more withdrawn than Xavi. For our machine to go, its engine room has to be working. It wasn’t today. Disappeared for looong stretches. Pepe should have been gutted by Xavi and he running rings around him.
Messi: 3. Clearly off-form, even though he had a pair of very good scoring chances. Giveaways galore, and then not even bothering to chase the ball? Unlike him. He’s exhausted, and there’s no relief in sight.
Pedro: 3. The P in “MVP” is still playing his way back into form. He looks the same, but the results aren’t the same as he does the headless chicken thing far too often. Not one quality shot on goal today.
Villa: 2. He tracked back on defense some, and nice work to earn the penalty. Everything else was pretty awful. He’s looking and playing a lot like Krkic during his crisis on confidence. Dude just can’t buy a goal. How do you get put through on goal, and you hit it directly at the keeper? Yeccch!
Keita (for Puyol): 5. A little out of his depth, but he always is with fast, counter-attacking sides, where by the time he gets in the way, the ball/player is gone. Were Mascherano available, it’s hard not to imagine Guardiola not going for him instead.
Afellay (for Pedro): 6. Some good plays, but again not sufficiently dynamic to deal with that kind of a pressing, aggressive side. Some of the blame must reside with his teammates.
Maxwell (for Adriano): incomplete. EE took almost immediate advantage of his lack of pace and physicality, kicking off the sequence that led to the equalizing play/penalty sequence. Did he err per se? Nope.
Next up is the Copa del Reig final on Wednesday. Today’s match didn’t concern me all that much, and Wednesday’s N.I.T. final won’t either. Champions League. Repeat after me: Champions League. It’s sad for Krkic that he isn’t healthy, so that he could get the start for this match. But that’s life, right?